Women Claim Place on Agenda At UN Human Rights Meeting

FLORENCE BUTEGWA doesn't stop to ponder when asked about the key human rights abuses in Africa: "One of the major issues is violence against women," says the regional coordinator of Women in Law and Development in Africa, a Zimbabwe-based women's rights organization. "It is really widespread, increasing in terms of the systemic nature and the injuries."

Ms. Butegwa lists other violations against women that occur in many countries: female infanticide, coerced abortion, and mass rape amid armed conflict. She contends that women suffer disproportionately under economic structural adjustment programs that cut spending on health, education, and employment.

These abuses have never received much attention by the governments of most countries or by the United Nations, activists say. But on June 14 that could change as Butegwa and hundreds of other women from around the world converge in Vienna for the UN World Conference on Human Rights. The activists say they will try to force the UN to place abuses against women on the global human rights agenda.

The coalition of women that has organized for the conference "represents the emergence of a global women's human rights movement that didn't exist five years ago," says Dorothy Thomas, director of the Women's Rights Project at Human Rights Watch in Washington.

Women activists agree that the 1985 UN Women's Conference in Nairobi was a catalyst in generating the momentum among women's groups to organize on a global scale. Since that conference, scores of women's groups have sprung up, especially in third-world countries. For the first time they began using the framework of human rights to spotlight the abuses of women.

The network of women has so far gathered more than 250,000 signatures in 121 countries in a petition campaign to pressure the UN to recognize women's human rights. They are calling for:

* An appointment of a special UN rapporteur on violence against women and discrimination.

* A special study of violence against women at the human rights level.

* Training for all UN human rights professionals in gender-specific rights abuses.

Many abuses against women have not been recognized as human rights abuses because they are considered private matters, says Susana Fried of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Such "private" abuses run the gamut. In India, society often turns the other cheek when brides are killed in disputes over their dowries. In Brazil, men who kill their wives for committing adultery - or even if the husband merely suspects adultery - can be acquitted by justifying the act as a matter of honor. In the United States, Ms. Fried says, domestic violence is regarded as a family affair.

"Generally, human rights has been defined as involving the state as the actor committing the violation, or actions taking place in public," Fried says. But when the victims are women - as in mass rapes - the crimes are not pursued as human rights abuses, she asserts. The publicity surrounding the abuse of Muslim women in Bosnia, these activists say, is an exception.

`THERE is a great willingness to [overlook] the rights of women," for the sake of cultural, religious, or ethnic traditions, says Niamh Reilly, also of the Center for Women's Global Leadership.

In some African and Middle Eastern countries, girls are circumcised so they will remain pure for their marriage. The ritual, which is performed by women, results in genital mutilation. Yet it is widely accepted because women who aren't circumcised have a difficult time finding husbands. Although women have increasingly protested this ritual, they are often accused of trying to destroy their cultural heritage.

Despite the strong coalition of women at the conference, activists acknowledge it is unlikely the world community will embrace their reforms.

"For the conference to produce any results, it will have to move beyond a kind of grudging acceptance that women's rights constitute human rights to actually implementing concrete reforms," says Margaret Schuler, director of the Institute for Women, Law, and Development in Washington.

The involvement of women "is not going to stop after this conference," adds Ms. Thomas. "The UN has been put on notice, and it won't be able to just stand back anymore."

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